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  • Artists of the Now
  • Howard Eiland (bio)
becoming past: history in contemporary art by jane blocker

We enter on burning ground as we approach the poetry of times so near to us …

Matthew Arnold, "The Study of Poetry" (1880)

Whatever its degree of "burning," the contemporary in its aura of familiarity—the ostensible now of a cultural-historical present day in transition between yesterday and tomorrow—seems actually to be something peculiarly remote and coy of access. In addressing the question of the contemporary in her wide-ranging new study, Jane Blocker takes a cue at the outset from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben's 2008 publication, "What Is the Contemporary?" Agamben's little essay itself cites a series of writers, from Friedrich Nietzsche to Osip Mandelstam, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, in expounding its idea of "contemporariness," or attualità, as a singular relationship with one's own time, a special experience of time, and not just a periodizing designation (signifying, say, "digital age") within a historiographic chronology. Nietzsche, Mandelstam, and the rest can then be his contemporaries in this disconcerting concern with historical time and witness. To recognize the historical actuality of the contemporary scene, Agamben argues, to be initiated, as it were, into such actuality so as to develop a nose for the topical and for the degrees of topicality, requires, first of all, an historically informed critical attentiveness founded on a measure of distance and disconnection from that scene. At issue is access to a temporal depth, to a dark "unlived element" (Agamben, 51) in what is lived—something [End Page 187] on which those who conform too easily to their own time lack perspective. The history of the contemporary can be told only by virtue of a hermeneutic swerve, what he calls "dys-chrony" (41), an untimely and altogether haunted being-out-of-joint that makes possible a transformation of chronological time from within. True contemporaries are therefore rare.

Agamben quotes (without quotation marks) from Benjamin's Arcades Project in comparing, as Blocker notes, the structure of con-temporariness to that of fashion. The latter is itself always citing some previous design. Indeed, fashion is contemporary with every past, as Benjamin puts it (1999a, 894); its innovations characteristically take shape and attain their Aktualität, their relevance, in the medium of what has been (64–66).1 The "actual," bespeaking here an epochally stamped constellation of divergent historical traces, wants to mean more than merely contemporary and fashionable, more than aktuell in the sense of a one-sided, unhistorical, and therefore false consciousness.2 Benjamin elsewhere invokes the charged fullness of "now time" (Jetztzeit), understood as an historically distilled immediacy—an experience of the sudden encounter and mutual tension between particular past and present moments—crystallized in the dialectical image that breaks open the continuum (2003, 396–97). The epigraph to Blocker's Introduction, taken from Benjamin's last known work, concerns this "tiger's leap into the past," the destabilizing construction of historical time: "History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled full by now time" (2003, 395).

In their conception of the dialectical momentum of historical remembrance (dialectical because both concentrated and expansive, directed toward past and present simultaneously), Agamben and Benjamin each acknowledge their debt to Nietzsche's critique of nineteenth-century historicism. Blocker quotes from the specific text in question, Nietzsche's 1874 essay "On the Utility and Liability of History for Life," which sets out to dismantle the claim of scientific historicism to have apprehended, through research and documentation, a given epoch of the past "as it really was." It was the philologist Nietzsche's insight, so decisive for the artistic and critical legacy of high modernism, that the past as such is necessarily interpreted—"the voice of the past is always the voice of an oracle"3—and that all interpretation and experience of the past necessarily reflects the concerns [End Page 188] and, above all, the energies of the historian's own present day: "Only from [out of] the highest power of the present can you interpret the past" (Nietzsche, 129–30). Conceived as a means of growing...


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